A Warrior in Enemy Territory
May 15, 2012 § 3 Comments
They were careful
As someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
Tao te Ching, Chap.15 (Stephen Mitchell translation)
Zen, the Tao, meditation, mindfulness. Many people associate these ideas with passivity, even weakness. That’s all fine, they say, if you want to live your life in a Buddhist monastery in Big Sur. But if you want to live in the hectic, demanding real world, you’d better leave your meditation mat in the closet.
This is just all wrong.
Consider this. Imagine the great athlete, someone who thrives in the intensely competitive world of professional sport. Then imagine them at a moment of peak performance. Maybe it’s Usain Bolt powering down the track, or Laird Hamilton carving into a swell, or Lionel Messi weaving through the defenders to attack the goal. Each of them- in their moment- is precisely and only living in that moment. Just running, just surfing, just dancing across the pitch. Their movements are strong but fluid. Amidst the fury that surrounds them, their minds are quiet and focused. They are Zen.
The truth is that the practices and conceptions of Zen and the Tao are not so critical for one who lives in quiet solitude in the hills above the Pacific. Such an existence is simply and naturally filled with peace. These practices and conceptions are needed right here- in the world of ringing alarms, relentless demands, hectic pace- the world in which you and I live.
Like a warrior in enemy territory, we are surrounded by danger- thoughts that would sap our strength, defeat our will, and bring us low. But if we can be fluid as melting ice and clear as a glass of water, if we can find and hold our mindfulness, we will be like the athlete in the moment of performance- strong, willful, and riding high.
May 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
Steve McQueen was not the greatest actor of his generation- but he was the coolest. Although he starred in many movies that projected this aura of coolness, his role in the movie “Bullitt” is iconic. If you watch that movie today though, you will notice something unusual. The movie is nearly devoid of some of the contemporary markers of action flicks. The McQueen character, Detective Frank Bullitt, does not shoot very many people- only one in fact – and does not blow things up- if you don’t count the gas station that erupts as the bad guys’ car plows into it at the conclusion of the famous car chase scene.
McQueen’s character embodied coolness differently. He was a man of few words and unhurried movement. He remained fully present in each situation, in each moment of the movie. Never distracted, never lost in emotion. Always ready. He was strong and he did what needed to be done. Frank Bullitt was a very cool character.
But what does all this have to do with Zen and the Tao?
Many people see Zen as too passive, as a set of ideas that don’t fit the “real world.” For them the robed monk with shaven head who resides in a mountain monastery is what Zen is about. All well and good in theory, they say, but hardly a way to navigate the hectic and relentless path of “real life.”
But I see Zen also in Frank Bullitt and, more meaningfully, in the very best of the businesspersons and lawyers, the teachers, coaches, counselors, and others, whom I’ve known over the years. Whether they were consciously aware of it or not, these exceptional people embodied the ideas of Zen and the Tao. Seeking to be fully present in each moment, open to whatever comes, rock strong, possessing a rooted sense of self, these men and women devoted themselves to the tasks at hand with all their will.
To embrace the ideas of Zen and the Tao does not require us to retreat from the world at all. We do not become passive. Instead, we operate at the fullest range of our capacities. To be strong, centered, and present is not just to be Zen. It is what “being cool” means.
May 2, 2012 § 3 Comments
Each action, each choice, each aspect of our lives possesses a deep simplicity. What we see as the complexity of things only serves to obscure that simplicity. If we can keep to the simple, we will be better off.
Okay, that sounds good and when you are sitting peacefully reading this passage, it even seems possibly true. But then you turn away and the world comes crashing in. You begin to plan your day, the mental list of important tasks arises and grows. As you turn to the first thing at hand, another thing interrupts you. You get busier and busier, the pace of life accelerates, plans come undone. Pretty soon, the crush of cascading events and obligations washes away that conception of simplicity.
In our personal relationships, a similar process arises. “It’s complicated” has become a common description of our relationships with others. Thus, we question our relationships, we wonder why the person we care about seems often so maddening to us, we wonder about their feelings toward us. But here too we will be better to keep to the simple. Underneath what seems a complex and changing set of emotions is the simple essence of love.
We manufacture the complexity we see in the world. We create the sense of busyness and frustration in our lives, as we create the idea of complication in our personal relationships. Even the most task-filled day consists of only one thing at a time. Even what seems a difficult relationship is grounded in the feeling that you care about the other person. Simple.
Even knowing this, we will still often feel anxiety about the busy day ahead and may sometimes have moments of doubt about our relationships with those we love, of course. But if we can recall that those emotions are a product of our busy minds and that they obscure the essential simplicity, we may yet return to the simple, where we belong.
The Cross of the Moment
April 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night or the names of all the Justices of the current Supreme Court (and I’m a law professor), but some passages of writing I can recite from heart. From time to time, I will post one of those passages and today is the first time.
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
This passage is taken from W.H. Auden’s poem, The Age of Anxiety.
April 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
One of the stories that filtered up to me as part of my family history is the story of my paternal great-grandfather, who was a dentist and inventor in a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland. In the early 20th century, he became intrigued by the internal combustion engine that was powering the new sensation, the Model T. My great-grandfather thought he could improve the carburetor and, as the story goes, invented and patented a modified version. He took the idea to the Ford Motor Company and the company decided they wanted his invention. So the Ford Motor Company, at the advent of the automobile industry, offered my great-grandfather two alternative forms of payment- a shiny brand new Model T or some stock in their new company. He was never prouder, I was told, than the first day he got to drive his new Model T around Pocomoke City, Maryland. Meanwhile, the Ross family motored through the century in their genteel poverty. What if?
In my own life, I have made choices that I could easily second-guess. Job opportunities that I passed on, investment decisions that I made, and so on. But I could spend forever spinning out wistful imaginings about what my life would have looked like had I chosen differently, or had my ancestor taken the stock, and nothing would change. My great-grandfather is still cruising town in his Model T and I am still right here, right now. And on top of that, we cannot possibly know what any other path would have looked like over time. My ancestor takes the stock and then what? That story could go in an infinite number of directions, many of them not so good for my family. I could have taken that other job but how could I know this would have been a better choice? Such imaginings thus seem really quite pointless.
And yet, being a pointless waste of time isn’t the worst thing about pondering- what if? Asking “what if” possesses a corrosive potential not present in other time-wasting activities. When we ask this question, we have started down the path to regret. And in regret we lose ourselves.
“We lose ourselves.” The words have a nice ring but what, exactly, does that mean? Regret takes us away from the strong sure sense of self that we must possess to live fully and presently. It does this, first, by taking us out of the present moment and turning our attention to the past. But that’s just the beginning.
Regret is more than a distraction. It entails judgment. We judge ourselves to have failed in some way, to have made a mistake. If only we had chosen better, we say. Regret is like a one-two punch that makes it impossible to be engaged actively and strongly in what is right in front of us. We are somewhere else in our heads and, at the same time, we are beating down our sense of confidence and strength through the act of judging ourselves. We lose ourselves in the pit of regret- unable to change an unalterable past and unable to be present in our moment.
So, as always, the important lesson is simply expressed but difficult to live. Regret nothing.
April 17, 2012 § 3 Comments
Last year I purchased a balance board. When I first began using it, I had great difficulty staying up on the board. In time of course I got better and was able to maintain my balance for extended periods. It takes energy and physical effort to stay up. The constant small muscle twitches and movements take their toll. But the mental fatigue is the biggest problem. When I concentrate consciously on the activity, I begin to tire and before too long, I step off the board. But when I am not thinking about the activity, when I am just on the board, I feel as though it is all effortless. I feel as though I could stay on the board forever.
Something like that applies to the practice of being in the present moment. When you consciously try to stay in the present moment, you will be able to stay in that posture for only a short while before the sense of mental fatigue sends you “off the board.” But when you are present more naturally, without the conscious sense of effort and will, you feel no fatigue, no resistance. Thus the challenge is not in the maintenance of your conscious effort, the challenge instead is in finding and sustaining the absence of conscious effort, in sustaining the natural posture of presentness or balance.
This isn’t to say that we must find a way to stay always in that kind of natural centeredness. Who can really do that? Zen monks spend years in the pursuit of this way of being and still falter. The idea is that we should strive for that natural, centered way of being, knowing that, as with the balance board, we will fall off. But each moment that we are just in balance, just present and centered, will bring us a strength and peace that is beyond words.
Leaving No Trace
April 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
Usually when we do something that we see as significant, we attach a sense of accomplishment or pride to what we have done. So we close a financially advantageous deal, or we complete a marathon, and we think of this as a great accomplishment. But in thinking this way, we freight our actions with the traces of these thoughts and feelings.
You may say, how would it be possible not to feel a sense of accomplishment in such moments, and isn’t feeling this positive way about yourself a good thing? The difficulty here is that once you start to attach these feelings and judgments to your actions, you complicate matters. Sure, when you feel a sense of accomplishment in finishing the marathon, you feel good about yourself- I did an amazing thing, good for me. But what if you had brought all your will and effort to bear and still you had been unable to finish, or what if things more urgent arose and you were unable to participate at all? What then would you think of your non-accomplishment, your “failure” to complete the marathon?
Leaving no trace means keeping it simple. When you are done with an action, you are done. In Zen, burning yourself completely in a given action, whether it is meditation or closing a deal, means not just being in the present moment continuously, controlling yourself, seeking to be the force of nature that is a centered human. You must also burn yourself to ashes, leaving no trace of yourself. When you are truly centered in action, you have no need to attach some thought or judgment to your action, or to your performance. You will feel the centeredness and that will be enough, that will be all there is.
April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
In Zen we say that the soft overcomes the hard. “Hard” conventionally connotes strength, as “soft” connotes weakness. So how then does the hard overcome the soft? In the physical world the effects of water provide the best example of the soft overcoming the hard, as the river carves a canyon through the rock. But in human affairs it is also true that strength is misunderstood and the soft overcomes the hard.
A famous actor once remarked that as he prepared to play a “tough guy” he recalled some advice given to him years before. His teacher had told him- remember, the most powerful person in a room is likely to be the one who says, and moves, the least. Talking in a loud voice, stomping around, are often symptoms of anxiety and weakness.
Each of us has been in the presence of someone who feels like a force of nature, so powerful that his leadership emerges organically and not bureaucratically. Such a person usually gets his way but not out of hierarchical authority, or brute intimidation, but rather out of the strong and sure sense of self that permeates him. He is willfulness, embodied. A person who brings this kind of strength and willfulness to the negotiating session may not get everything that he desires but he will get what there is to get.
How then do I obtain such strength? It is simple and it is difficult. Such strength can only come from within you, no one can give it to you. It must be earned, moment-to-moment. If you can be aware, alive, unflinching, and fully present in each moment, you will possess this strength. You will be the “boss” of your space and moment. Whatever you do from that place of centeredness will be the correct action. This does not mean that others will simply fall into line. Such strength, while it will influence others, is not to be measured by the response of those around you. Possessing this posture of centeredness is strength, period. Nothing more is needed.
Thus, strength is not what we suppose. It is both simpler in its nature and more difficult in its maintenance than we imagine. It has nothing to do with how loud we are or how much our voice dominates the conversation. Yes, a strong person sometimes raises her voice and demands her way. But she does so consciously, even calmly. She is like a force of nature. She is strength embodied- moment by moment.